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#ItSeemsToMe...COVID Pandemic Exposes Church Identity Crisis

"The church is a building."

Not in the holy scriptures. Not to the earliest Christ -followers.

But the mind of everyone who hears or reads or speaks the word, "church" produces a mental image of a building. We go to church. We build a church. We meet at the church.

And this tragic truth is ubiquitous despite the reality that you and I know "church" refers to people; a "called-out" community of faith. This mistake persists even though we teach and preach that throughout the Bible, the people of God are identified as an assembly, a body, a family, a household. We the people, are the Church; not the building.

Yet, our incorrect use of the term has become indicative of the way we experience church. In a building. Watching a platform-centered program formatted by a select and very small team of experts. Persons gifted in public speaking, singing, instrumentation, creative arts, technology. An audience, often listening in a space called an auditorium.

Congregations are designed, regardless of denomination or tradition, to reset every seven days. Small groups may meet at varying times. All may be invited to a prayer meeting during the week. But a church that cannot regroup, face-to-face, on a weekly basis  has not been prepared nor does it have in place systems for connecting and communicating in case of an unprecedented emergency. Such as a pandemic that forces the closure of large group meetings or events for an extended period df time.

Church, as we know it, is designed for the members/attenders to be in their seats, not scattered into the streets. 

Our unprecedented virus-crisis is exposing how our understanding of the word "church" has become a description of how we function. In a building. Listening. 

My fear is many pastors are uncertain of how to shepherd the flock that does not return weekly to the room where they receive inspiration and instruction. I wonder if church leaders are rethinking how to motivate and mobilize the people of God without calling them together into a facility? Can we hope Christ-followers are daily, on their own, leaning into the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, scripture, service? 

Simply making plans (and there are plenty to be made) to merely reopen church, may actually be a step backwards. The desire to return to what was once considered normal, as comfortable as that sounds, may prevent us from an opportunity for "church" to "be transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12:2)

The Church is experiencing an identify crisis. We are in need of a new architectural-nomenclature that prompts an image, less on building (noun) and more on building (verb). Less on the meetings led by the professionals and more on the movements of the people of God into their neighborhoods and across their communities.  Form and function must expand. Systems and strategies must be reimagined.

The danger of this virus-crisis is no longer limited to a physical disease that is causing tens of thousands of deaths. Every sector of family and society are being affected: the economy (local business, national retailers, multi-national corporations), education (schools at every age and degree level), health care (from hospitals to adult care centers), entertainment (cancelled concert tours to social distancing at the movies to empty sports stadiums).

We are watching these sectors scramble to adjust in order to keep from going out  of business. In the process, they are designing different systems of operating, offering new and different options better suited to serve their customers or clients with radically different daily routines. Curbside service. Working from home. Online education. Grocery delivery. Voting by mail. FaceTime Family game nights (with cousins across the country).

Staying in place is pushing us to rethink how we shop, work, learn, and connect socially.

My fear, is for the congregations that will be satisfied to reopen, hoping, maybe even praying, those who do return will be happy with what was.

Will we discover many people who identify as Christians unable to function without their regular Sunday gathering or weekly face-to-face group? Worse yet, will we see the disappearance of many who choose not to return to former weekly routines? "Done" joining the Nones? Have pastors adjusted by convening leadership (online or social distanced) to pray into the unknown new normal? Have the shepherds made personal (phone, email) contact with their members/attenders to simply listen to them share their needs and fears; their spiritual discoveries? Have church leaders called the church to weekly or daily prayer? Has anyone formatted their Sunday/weekend online service to include interaction (questions, prayer, interviews, testimonies), or are the people of God pretty much on their own?

May we not be too busy pursuing what it takes to survive at the expense of praying into what can be done in order to actually thrive. The Church is led by the Lord Jesus Christ, our redeemer. We must not be content to pray little prayers, begging God to simply help us stay in business. We should be thanking the Lord he can take what is meant for evil and not just make it better but turn it into a greater good. We should be asking the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to new schedules and systems, objectives and opportunities.

To reopen without a fresh reimagining of what it means to be church quenches the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, who is  ready, willing and able to transform us to perceive our new normal as a new chapter in the mission and ministry of the Church. Five hundred years after the Reformation, we find ourselves in the midst of what may one day be called the Transformation.

None of this demands a revision of theology. Our biblically based beliefs remain intact, but with a renewed fervor to bring fresh discernment and wisdom to how we apply scriptural truth to our calling, our mission. For such as time as this, the Spirit may lead us to pursue a radically different vision, or to resume our pursuit of ministry but in a radically different way.

Our faithfulness to the scriptures does not demand an equally high allegiance to the methods we have used to live out that mission. In fact, to refuse to review and renew is the beginning of becoming mechanical, stuck on previously effective methodology, imprisoned in a comfort zone, at the very time we have the opportunity to build a "church" that is movemental.

It Is Critical We Commit NOW To #ReimagineCHURCH...

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MORE Gen Z

Since the start of the pandemic, technology use has skyrocketed, especially among young people.

When we asked pastors how they felt about this trend, almost 9 out of 10 said they were at least somewhat concerned. But when we asked those same leaders if their church has a specific plan for teaching young people how to handle digital content wisely, 86% said no.

If we’re going to disciple Gen Z toward a resilient faith, knowledge of current trends isn’t enough. We need a step-by-step plan for taking action on what we know.

That’s why we’ve created Barna CoLab: Reaching Gen Z, an interactive learning experience that will guide you through the steps of relaunching or refining your next gen ministry.

Over the course of 6 weeks, we will:
  • Walk you through what the latest research is teaching us about Gen Z
  • Uncover opportunities in your ministry through custom assessments
  • Connect you with other leaders so you can learn and grow together
  • Help you create a comprehensive plan for ministry to Gen Z using the all-new Barna Insights Framework
A clear plan can make next gen ministry less stressful and more effective. Let us help you create one in our new Barna CoLab.

(with thanks to Brian Bakke)

What Just Changed About Our Mission Field

James Emery White

Over the last year, our mission field has changed. It has become much, much more resistant to the Christian faith and message.

Here’s the headline:

Over the course of the last year, those outside of the Christian faith have increasingly looked on Christians with derision. A new animus has emerged toward Christians and Christianity—specifically evangelical Christians and evangelical Christianity.

Why?

This is when you need to put on your big-boy pants. I’m going to be telling you why they feel this way. It’s not about whether they are right or justified. I’m telling you how they’re thinking, and how they’re feeling. I’m going to tell you how we are being perceived. The reputation of Christians, and evangelical Christianity in particular, has been hit in five ways, over five issues, over the past year.

First, the insistence of some to meet for in-person, weekend services. That didn’t and isn’t going over well. The anger toward “open” or “opening” churches from the wider population is palpable. And no segment of that “wider population” is livider and more disgusted than those who are unchurched. The sentiment is that churches insisting on meeting indoors, in person and in mass, are selfish, uncaring, unloving and belligerent.

Even though many churches are gathering with masks and social distancing, it doesn’t help that there are just as many, if not more, gathering without masks or distancing and posting the gatherings boldly on social media as if a badge of spiritual pride. This causes all cautiously “open” churches to be painted with the same brush of perceived reckless irresponsibility and disdain for the health of others.

The bottom line is that those we are trying to reach care little for our desire to meet, our hunger for corporate worship or our First Amendment rights. They would say that they have been deprived of much themselves. What they do care about is any group of people acting in such a way that seems to callously put others at risk. It is simply deemed selfish and unloving. It is seen as putting the emotional or relational needs we had to be together over the now 500,000 plus lives lost in the U.S. alone, not to mention the one in five Americans who have lost someone dear to them.

In a strange cultural twist, it is now the unchurched saying that we value the quality of life over the sanctity of life. In their minds, we have not loved our neighbor. Specifically, we have not loved them.

And there’s some truth to that.

A Pew Research survey was recently released that found only 54% of all White evangelicals planned on getting the vaccine. But here’s what was most concerning: More than half of White evangelicals said they would not even take the health effects of their community into account in their decision. In other words, they wouldn’t consider what taking or not taking it would mean for their neighbor. They literally said they didn’t care.

Second, the embrace of conspiracy theories like QAnon by many Christians, mostly evangelical ones, put us firmly on the fringe in their minds.

We’ve all heard of QAnon by now. What is alarming is the degree by which conspiracy theories like those it spreads have taken hold in Christian circles. It’s some bizarre stuff: 5G radio waves are used for mind control; George Floyd’s murder is a hoax; Bill Gates is related to the devil; face masks can kill you; the germ theory isn’t real; and there is a ring of pedophiles made up of deep state leaders.

Now, if you’re reading this thinking, “Wait, some of that is true!”, I’m not going to get into conspiracy theory debates with you. I’m telling you what the people we are wanting to reach are thinking. They’ve got one word for it: crazy. Again, to the unchurched, it makes Christianity as a whole seem not just extreme, but on the fringe, and even weirder than it already was to their thinking.

Third, the violence that has seemed to come with Christian Nationalism has them frightened and appalled. The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 by people carrying the Christian flag, signs about Jesus and faith and a Christian America – even holding a prayer service once the rioters got inside – will forever be etched in their psyches.

It’s all about Christianity being identified with hate and violence and insurrection and forcing a Christian cultural and, in their minds, political agenda on to the world through terror. In their minds, we’re no different than the people who flew planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 as retribution against Islam. Only this was retribution against Christianity. To their thinking, it’s all the same terrorism in the name of religion.

A fourth issue is the confusion about all things Trump. White evangelicals in particular supported him. The unchurched, non-Christian didn’t care about the importance of conservatives in Supreme Court appointments, laws about freedom of religion or the question of abortion. All they saw were Christians fawning over a man to the point of seeming idolatry—a man who even his most ardent supporters would admit is a deeply immoral man. From their perspective, we cared about power more than purity. We would eagerly condemn sin in their lives – such as homosexuality, adultery and pornography – but embrace and overlook lying, sexual immorality, multiple divorces, ego and immaturity in Trump. In their estimation, Christian support of Trump was hypocrisy. It gutted our moral authority because we threw what mattered morally out the window in return for political gain.

Finally, they saw the often-muted response to the death of George Floyd and other tragic events related to race and racism and social injustice as wildly insufficient. Their verdict was that many Christians were silent on the greatest moral issue of the day. Instead of a clear stand, all they felt they heard from us were arguments about critical race theory, the denial of institutional racism and the condemnation of violence and looting in the streets. Which, to them, was at best culturally tone-deaf and at worst exhibiting our own racism.

Now again, there’s no point in trying to push back at this. It’s how they feel. And you can’t just write all this off and say, “Well, they’re just liberals and we’re conservatives.” Or “Well, Christians will always be persecuted.” Or “We shouldn’t care what the world thinks.” I won’t get into whether those sentiments are true or not. I will say they are largely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the source of the attitudes toward the Christian faith may be.

Here’s what matters.

The world we are trying to reach believes that we don’t care about them. They believe we are certifiably crazy and irrational—not because of our doctrine, but because of what we believe off the internet. They believe that we are as violent as any terrorist group, that we are hypocrites, and that we are racist.

That’s kind of a problem. Those are assessments about our character. Those are assessments about how we match up to the Jesus we proclaim. Those are assessments about our morality. You can laugh at me or hold me in contempt all day long for believing in the virgin birth, the atonement of my sins through Christ’s death on the cross, the Trinitarian nature of God, and the inerrancy of Scripture.

I’ll wear it as a badge of pride.

But if you are holding me in disdain for perceived lovelessness, the lack of sound reason and judgment, violence and hatred, hypocrisy and racism, then I’m no longer proud (whether I’m guilty or not)—I’m in crisis mode.

All to say, cultural apologetics has gotten a lot tougher, with a lot more to help people get past than ever before. So that’s the bad news.

The good news is that a lot of local churches gained ground with the unchurched during this time. Christianity as a whole might have had some tough sledding in the court of public opinion, but many local churches earned respect and admiration.

From the perspective of the unchurched, they gained points for staying closed, or by making it very clear than when they gathered, they took every possible precaution. They spoke out against racism and took time to pray and teach about it. They debunked conspiracy theories. They spoke out against the violence at the Capitol and the many insidious elements of extreme Christian Nationalism. And they walked through the election year politics in a way that made clear that they were Christians first, and Democrats or Republicans second.

But let’s be candid.

The pandemic, collectively, was not our greatest moment in terms of perception and public relations. And we need to realize that the mission is going to be much, much more difficult as a result.

James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.


Leading in Babylon or Leading in Israel?


Kaye and I were once at a movie theater, early in our marriage, in Miami. There was a box of popcorn on the row in which we were seated, with more than half the box still filled with buttered popcorn. I viewed the box as trash, as the remnants of a thoughtless moviegoer from the previous film who failed to bring the box to the trashcan. Kaye, however, viewed the box as an opportunity to enjoy some popcorn. Our view of the moment impacted how we reacted in the moment. This is true with popcorn in a movie theater and with how we view the world around us.

Our view of our cultural context will dramatically impact how we lead and serve in our context. My good friend and former colleague, Trevin Wax, once observed that some view pastoring and leading a church in America similar to leading God’s people in Israel while others view pastoring and leading a church in America similar to leading God’s people in Babylon. In the Old Testament, we read that God chose the people of Israel as His own, loved them, graciously gave them land and commanded them to only worship Him in that land – to not worship the gods of the surrounding countries. God also carried His people to Babylon, and commanded them to thrive and care for well-being of the city. Some of their history is in the land of Israel. Some of their history is in another land, including the land of Babylon.

Is our context as Christ-followers more like God’s people living in Israel or more like God’s people living in Babylon? How one answers that question will impact how one responds to the world around us.

Those who view our context as comparable to life in Israel articulate that God has established America just as God established Israel and that He uses America to bless other countries. Those who view our context as comparable to life in Babylon articulate that God’s people are exiles in this world just as God’s people were exiles in Babylon and that this world is not our home just as Babylon was not their home. Both viewpoints understand that God is the One who establishes where people live and that Christians should love and serve others.

But these two viewpoints differ greatly too. Those who view life in America as life in Israel can run down a cultural warpath to tear down cultural sins and agendas that can take America away from “her Christian roots.” Those who view life in America as more comparable to life in Babylon believe that God’s people must indeed be distinct and guard themselves from idols, but they don’t believe their mission is to purge Babylon. They believe they are to serve Babylon.

While our cultural context is not exactly Babylon, there are some similarities. It is important to remember that America is not Israel and God’s people are indeed in exiles in this world.

America is not a new Israel.

I absolutely love living in America. I am thankful for the freedoms, the religious liberty, and the opportunities we enjoy. I am thankful for the men and women who protect those freedoms and serve us. But America is not Israel. The promises given to Israel in the Old Testament cannot be applied to our Country. They can often be applied to those who belong to Christ and are the people of God. In the New Testament, America is not “God’s chosen people.” The apostle Peter reminded Christians scattered all over because of persecution that they are God’s chosen people (I Peter 2:9). The people Jesus rescues from every tribe, tongue, and nation, purchased with His blood are God’s chosen people.

We are exiles.

When Jeremiah wrote to God’s people living in Babylon, he reminded them that they were exiles (Jeremiah 29:1-7). As exiles, they were to persevere and grow as a people. They were also to work for the well-being of the place where they now lived. We too are exiles and strangers in a world that is not our home (I Peter 2:11). We are exiles here because our citizenship is ultimately in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

Kaye and I had a pretty sharp disagreement over how we viewed that bucket of popcorn. I could not believe she started eating it! And in a divisive cultural time, different viewpoints of our cultural context are more pronounced. Ministry leaders who view our cultural context as more comparable to life in Babylon than life in Israel will disappoint those with the opposite viewpoint. Those who view life in America as life in Israel want a Hezekiah who will tear down the sins in the land. We would benefit from more Hezekiah’s, but judgement should begin with the people of God and not the surrounding culture. Hezekiah did not confront the sins in Assyria or Babylon. He tore down the idols among God’s people. We have plenty of idols among ourselves that need to be torn down.

#ReimagineCHURCH...

As churches find themselves on the viral ropes and wondering whether to throw in the towel, a surrendering of strength and stepping out of the ring may be what it takes for us to find our true strength in Jesus. It’s long been argued that the church cannot make a difference in the world unless it is different from the world. Jeremiah’s answer for the enculturated Israelites was exile; expulsion for the sake of embrace, failure for the sake of faith. Israel’s exile opened their eyes to how far they had capitulated to worldly affluence and entitlement which as God’s people they had been redeemed to resist.

The most significant work of the gospel happens when the church refuses to seek celebrity limelight and political power, when it takes counter-cultural risks, when it refuses to buy into the things that can be bought. God goes so far as to make himself a humble and impoverished working-class carpenter, crucified on a cross in order to save the world. The church, as the embodiment of Jesus, must abide according to the cross-shaped, Christian pattern of humility and failure, ironic power and radical grace, subversive righteousness and justice with love. The church makes a difference in the world when we are different from the world.

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Daniel Harrell
Editor in Chief, Christianity Today

Dissatisfied with Church

“Why do you think so many people are dissatisfied with church today? Does it make you think that something must be wrong with the Church?

“My plan is different for this generation. The instruments are now in place to evangelize the world as no other generation has had the opportunity. And the time is short. 

“I’m showing My children that church cannot satisfy because they are the Church. They are restless and discontent because I have made them to be fulfilled only when taking Jesus to lost people, not by celebrating their faith with other sheep.

“I didn’t say to spend your time in church, I said not to forsake coming together. I want you to do the things I did and greater. When did I ever encourage My disciples to bring people into the synagogue? What I did was send them out to teach unbelievers.

“I’m not saying to stop coming to church, but not to stop with church. Don’t keep investing yourself in the place with fewer needs when the world around you has such great need. Take your joy, hope, peace and love to those who have none.”
If you would like to have these messages in one place for easy reference, you may request this book and I’ll be happy to mail a copy as this ministry’s gift to you. For a listing of all Shiloh books, email me at ThingsHopedFor@comcast.net.
Blessings of love, peace and joy,
Randy Walter
Shiloh Ministries

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